Peter Tatchell, one of Britain’s leading human rights campaigners, has accused a student leader of smearing him with false accusations of racism and transphobia as part of a “McCarthy-style” witch-hunt.
Mr Tatchell will lead a discussion, called “Re-Radicalising Queers? Should we toe the line or cause a stir?” at Canterbury Christ Church University on 15 February.
However he now finds himself at the centre of the latest in a string of “no platforming” attempts by students, which critics contend are an attack on free speech.
An elected LGBT+ officer at the National Union of Students (NUS), Fran Cowling, was invited to speak at the event, but emailed organisers saying she would only attend if Mr Tatchell was dropped from the panel.
Her reasons were shocking: a man who has spent most of his life campaigning against homophobia and racism and speaking up for transgender people and human rights in general had actually supported transphobia and made racist remarks himself, she claimed.
Mr Tatchell, who denied the allegations, tried to raise the matter directly with Ms Cowling, but said she did not reply and his emails were then blocked. She also did not immediately respond to a request for comment by The Independent.
“Fran Cowling, apparently acting in the name of the National Union of Students, has denounced me as a racist and a transphobe,” he said. “She has a right to refuse to speak alongside me, but not to make witch-hunting, McCarthy-style, untrue allegations.”
Mr Tatchell’s activist career has seen him arrested about 300 times. His windows have been smashed dozens of times and he was beaten by guards after famously attempting a citizen’s arrest of Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe. He also said he had been subjected to “harassment and misrepresentation” for years by a “small but very vocal student faction”.
“It’s always the same scenario. They make outrageous allegations against me and when asked to provide the evidence they refuse to do so,” Mr Tatchell said, saying they included claims of misogyny, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. “On not a single instance has any accuser been able to provide a shred of evidence,” he stressed.
Mr Tatchell said he planned to raise Ms Cowling’s claims with the president of the NUS, but did not intend to take legal action.
In the email she sent to the organiser of the talk, Ms Cowling wrote that Mr Tatchell had signed an open letter published in the The Observer which she claimed “supported a number of TERFs [trans exclusionary radical feminists] in their right to be openly transphobic and incite violence against trans people”. The letter argued that the feminist academic Germaine Greer and others should be allowed to take part in public debates, despite believing that transgender women were not women.
Mr Tatchell said he “totally disagreed” with Ms Greer and other anti-trans feminists, but said it was better to debate them than try to silence them.